Barley Risotto

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Barley risotto is a dish with ancient roots. Barley predates the appearance of rice in Italy by many thousands of years, and thick porridges of barley date back to ancient Rome. Here’s a modern version kicked up with mushrooms and a rich stock.

A bowl of barley risotto with mushrooms, onions and garlic.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

The primary reason barley risotto works is because barley and short-grained rice share the same type of starch, which sloughs off into the liquid if you stir it while cooking.

To that end, you can’t make barley risotto by baking or really any other means than by making it exactly like a regular rice risotto — which is to say adding liquid little by little, stirring almost constantly, until the barley is tender and has released enough of its starch to make a creamy sauce.

You will see all sorts of other recipes claiming to make a creamy, starch-rich barley risotto without this method, but none will make a proper risotto.

(Looking for lots and lots of risotto recipes? I have a compilation of more than a dozen risotto recipes here.)

Note that you really want pearled barley for this recipe because the other variety, hulled barley, takes a lot longer to cook and doesn’t release its starch as easily. You can still make a risotto with hulled barley, but it will require more elbow grease and time.

Side note: Barley is not gluten-free. Nor is rye. Moving on.

Why use barley for a risotto? First, it is a way to touch the food of the ancients, which I find pretty cool. You can eat like the hordearii, the gladiators!

Second, barley is super healthy, high in fiber and vitamins and such. Third, barley is a main crop in the cold places of the world, so this method of cooking really works with northern ingredients.

That’s where I took this barley risotto.

Elements of This Barley Risotto

I thought about this dish as I was flying home from Alaska, where I had completed the Grand Slam of Grouse with a spruce grouse and ptarmigan hunt; you can read the story of that hunt here.

I had two spruce grouse, and I wanted to feature them in some sort of spruce grouse recipe. They’re not large birds, so I decided to toss them in the stock pot with the ptarmigan carcasses. Then, when the meat was done on the breasts and then, later, legs, I stripped it off, shredded it and held it aside.

Stock made (I used the same general principles as my pheasant stock recipe), that plus some onion and garlic from my garden formed the base of this barley risotto.

I rehydrated some porcini mushrooms I’d gathered earlier this year, and added the soaking water to the liquid for the risotto. Chopped fine, they went in with the onions at the beginning.

Once the barley was tender — keep in mind barley risotto takes longer to make than a rice risotto — I added the shredded spruce grouse, grated pecorino cheese and a big knob of butter.

Close up of a bowl of barley risotto.
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Substitutions

Clearly most of you won’t have spruce grouse or porcini lying around. Don’t worry about it.

Any dried mushroom, or fresh, for that matter, will work. You can buy little packets of dried porcini in most supermarkets, and if you can’t find them and want to use fresh, go for shiitakes or cremini.

If you are a gatherer and have other mushrooms to play with, by all means use them. Morels or black trumpets would be particularly good in a barley risotto.

As for the meat, any white meat works, from chicken and turkey to other grouse, quail, partridges, squirrel or rabbit.

Barley risotto doesn’t keep very long, although you could reheat it with a little more stock the following day. It does not freeze well at all.

If you liked this recipe, please leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating and a comment below; I’d love to hear how everything went. If you’re on Instagram, share a picture and tag me at huntgathercook.

Close up of a bowl of barley risotto.
5 from 17 votes

Barley Risotto

I add mushrooms and spruce grouse to this; chicken or any other white meat would be fine, too.
Course: lunch, Main Course
Cuisine: American, Italian
Servings: 4 servings
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 1 ounce dried mushrooms
  • 4 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1 cup minced onion
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 2 cups barley
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lovage, parsley or savory, minced
  • 2 teaspoons ground juniper (optional)
  • 5 cups stock (chicken, grouse, vegetable, etc.)
  • 8 ounces shredded grouse, chicken or other meat
  • 1/4 cup grated pecorino cheese
  • 2 tablespoons minced chives

Instructions 

  • Pour a couple cups of boiling water over the mushrooms to rehydrate them. Chop and shred the other ingredients while the mushrooms are softening. When they are rehydrated, chop them fine. Reserve 1 cup of the soaking water.
  • Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions and the mushrooms until the onions are soft and starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the barley and stir well.
  • Stir in the cup of mushroom soaking water, then add the herbs and juniper, if using. Stir constantly until the water has mostly been absorbed, then add a cup of the stock and repeat.
  • Keep this process up until the barley is tender. Once you have a couple cups of liquid absorbed, you can drop the heat to medium and slow down on the stirring. You still need to stir often, just not constantly.
  • When the barley is tender, stir in a little more stock, the shredded grouse and the cheese. When that's incorporated, mix in the last tablespoon of butter. Serve garnished with chives.

Nutrition

Calories: 639kcal | Carbohydrates: 82g | Protein: 35g | Fat: 21g | Saturated Fat: 10g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 3g | Monounsaturated Fat: 6g | Trans Fat: 0.5g | Cholesterol: 79mg | Sodium: 310mg | Potassium: 991mg | Fiber: 18g | Sugar: 3g | Vitamin A: 570IU | Vitamin C: 6mg | Calcium: 134mg | Iron: 5mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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13 Comments

  1. I’m wondering if the left over barley risotto could be stirred into barley pottage/stew? I usually make a batch every deer season. It is a nice change from chili.

  2. I don’t have any birds at the moment, no white meat at all really but I did have a big bag of beef bones so I roasted them, boiled them, and made a stock to use in this recipe along with about two cups of fresh mushrooms. Fantastic.

  3. I just made this with lovage from our garden and it was delicious! One small variation on the recipe; I soaked the barley for an hour beforehand and that way it cooked like arborio in 20 minutes.

    Thank you so much as always, Hank.

    You’re an inspiration

  4. Well! This is synchronistic for sure as just yesterday I made a Barley Pilaf as a switch to having it as a plain alternative side to rice. As I cooked it in a big cast iron pan, browning it a bit with sautéed onions and garlic before adding hot porcini mushroom stock, I actually figured a Risotto would be the next test! Again, with your posting of this recipe/article, I am forever inspired to dive in. Grazie!

  5. Another benefit of barely for folks watching their sugar levels: barley has the lowest glycemic load of the grains, so it ramps up glycemic levels in a more controlled way. Not sure what the effect of releasing the starches during cooking might mean, though.

  6. Question: The ground juniper , is that ground juniper berries?
    I have used whole juniper berries in a stew of venison , jeruselem artichoke ,smilax ( green briar ) tips , and turkey tail mushrooms and wild huckleberry corn muffins for desert. That was a good meal , good friends , and good camp.
    Thank you for the recipes and the stories of the gatherings it brings back the memories .

  7. Will be serving this up at our dove shoot next week-using the last of our pheasant. Pray for temperatures under 90! ? Life is hot in SW Florida.
    Love your style, Hank
    Linda Reddish

  8. Wow. grouse, squirrel and rabbit seasons open here in Michigan this Thursday. This recipe is first up this year, even before squirrel and dumplings (my go-to first dish of fall).